John A. DearbornOct 28, 2021
Congress and Presidential Representation
University of Chicago Press 2021
Political Scientist John Dearborn’s new book, Power Shifts: Congress and Presidential Representation (U Chicago Press, 2021), weaves together three connected threads in the course of his analysis: the role and capacity of ideas to make political change, the evolution of the position and understanding of the President of the United States as a representative of the citizens of the United States, and the way in which congressional legislation also works to shift the constitutional or institutional relationship between Congress and the President. This is a propulsive book, which is not necessarily the norm for academic publications, and Dearborn keeps the reader engaged through fascinating details about legislation that Congress passes in the midst of the 20th century that not only sets up policy outcomes but also provides the president with the power to create those outcomes. Dearborn then traces the ways, in the latter part of the 20th century, in which Congress attempts to wrangle some of that power back from the president, or to develop its own power to rival or parallel the president’s power.
Power Shifts focuses on this concept of the president as a national representative, which was not necessarily the idea that the Founders had for the president at the time of the Constitutional Convention. Some thought was given to how this national office would operate, but because of the way that the president is elected, at a remove from the people, the idea that the president was the voice or tribune of the people was not the key concept in the design of the presidency. Dearborn takes the reader through the evolution of this concept during the 19th and 20th century, highlighting how the presidents made claim to this particular role, while noting that it became clear that the veto power was not sufficient to reflect the voice of the people. During a number of decades in the midst of the 20th century, Congress builds up the presidency as an institution, formalizing presidential agenda-setting capacities and giving the presidency the organizational capacity to function as the center of the governmental structure and as the representative of all of the people. In examining several congressional acts, including the Budget Act of 1921, the Reorganization Act of 1939, and other particular constructions by Congress, Power Shifts examines how these creations centered presidential representation as the key to the design for these legislative moves. In the second part of the book, Dearborn explores the period of congressional resurgence in the 1970s and 1980s, and how Congress created connected legislation that sought to pull some of these powers away from the president, or at least provide Congress with sufficient capacity to challenge the president in a number of different arenas. And again, the arguments around the legislation dive into the question of whether the president is operating as a national representative, with a focus on the best interests of the people and the country. This is the overarching concern, whether the president can be trusted with the national interest. And, in a parallel analysis, can Congress reflect and work towards the national interest even if it is composed of members elected by states or localities, in contrast to the president? Is it even possible to have one man or woman represent a nation of more than 330 million people? Dearborn’s analysis leads the reader through all of these questions as he delves into the connected history of congressional legislation and executive power, and the question of representation within the American constitutional system.
Shaina Boldt assisted with this podcast.
Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015). Email her comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet to @gorenlj.